on: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band
Performing Arts Center, June 19
Pete Seeger deserves all the respect in the world, his music
generally has been as rhythmically stiff as a starched collar.
While paying tribute to Seeger’s impeccable musicology and
righteous sense of social justice this past Monday, Springsteen’s
Sessions Band injected 200 years’ worth of American music
history with all the bluesy passion, sweat and way-back-yonder
funk they could muster. Kicking off with the archetypal “John
Henry,” the Boss took the stage with high energy, kicking,
swirling and exhorting both his musicians and the audience
to take the music up higher while banging out a train rhythm
on his acoustic guitar. The deep bass and high twang of “O
Mary Don’t You Weep” transformed the SPAC amphitheatre into
the site of a prophecy, while the sing-along hoedown of “Old
Dan Tucker” had the mostly middle-aged crowd ready to go and
raise a barn.
Selections of Springsteen originals also were given the Seeger
Band treatment. “Adam Raised a Cain” featured a particularly
smoking duet between violinists Sam Bardfeld and Soozie Tyrell.
“Open All Night” and “You Can Look (But You’d Better Not Touch)”
rocked with an abandon that conjured up Elvis in his prime.
A reworked “Johnny 99,” from 1982’s Nebraska (a blueprint
for Americana troubadours), made sure the funk of James Brown
also was acknowledged in the roots revue.
While it’s a rare pleasure to see Springsteen in all his charismatic,
ass-kicking glory, each of the 16 band members exhibited enough
personality and skill to endear themselves to the crowd as
well. Along with the violinists, who took up the sonic space
an electric lead guitar usually would in a rock band, standouts
included the great banjo plucking of Greg Liszt (who looks
like a backwoods geek but has a Ph.D. from MIT), the ethereal
pedal steel of Marty Rifkin, and the scene-stealing four-piece
horn section. The bureaucratic bungling in the wake of Katrina
was often alluded to by Springsteen in both song and statement,
but it was the joyous N’Awlins polyphony of Ed Manion’s sax,
“La Bamba” Rosenberg’s trombone, and (especially) Mark Pender’s
trumpet and Art Baron’s tuba that spoke most fiercely and
eloquently about the treasure we almost lost down in Louisiana.
Springsteen was assisted on vocals by Tyrell, Cindy Mizell,
Marc Anthony Thompson (aka the perennially underrated Chocolate
Genius), Curtis King and Lisa Lowell. Interspersed among the
barnburners were the true jewels of the evening, simmering
gospel versions of immortal classics like “Eyes on the Prize,”
“We Shall Overcome” and “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
You couldn’t help but get misty while black and white men
and women joined voices and hands, becoming living examples
of peace and the promise America can still hold. As this joyful
show neared its end, Springsteen said, “Next time, I’m just
gonna put up a tent—play anywhere!” Just raise it, Bruce—we’ll
be sure to join you.
Performing Arts Center, June 26
On Sunday, the second day of the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival
at SPAC, it was clear that the event was as much about atmosphere
and spirit as it was about music. The sloping lawn seemed
like an expansive, sandless, oceanless beach dotted with bright-toned
The event also had a sense of controlled benevolence, with
three generations of listeners commingling throughout the
SPAC grounds. And, without getting all “Kumbaya” about it,
it was hard not to notice as well the intermingling of races
and backgrounds—jazz has always seemed to knock down those
But oftentimes it seemed as if the music (on the main stage
and the smaller gazebo stage) didn’t demand your attention—it
was there, omnipresent, when you wanted it, much of it great.
One artist who did pull a lot of eyes and ears in his direction
was the timeless Dave Brubeck and his quartet. Brubeck, now
85, has evolved to the point of cultural institution, and
even typically reserved peers and critics speak of Brubeck’s
Brubeck—in a crisp, light-colored suit and looking a tad feeble
during his entry stroll—had a peculiar way of settling into
repose at the piano: He seemed to almost recline in his seat
at times, arms at his side when not playing, as if everything
was sort of sweeping over him (or as if he was surrendering
himself to absorption). Then he would casually lift his hands
to the keys and those deft, unusual rhythms would flutter
effortlessly forth. Nothing about Brubeck sounds old—he
only wears the time on his frame.
The quartet had a powerful delicacy to them that simply stole
the day away from the other performers. The bottom-heavy amplification
of some of the bill sharers couldn’t shore up to the breezy
complexity of Brubeck and co., whose grace and interplay were
from a whole other stratosphere. The quartet opened up with
“Stormy Weather,” pushing nimbly through a bunch of standards,
including the best and brightest take on “Somewhere Over the
Rainbow” that many audience members had ever heard.
Alto saxophonist Bobby Militello drew frequent roars of appreciation,
filling the big shoes of long-deceased Brubeck collaborator
Paul Desmond, while drummer Randy Jones’ splashy, mind-defying
rhythms drove the four like a Porsche engine. Late in the
set, the group, now worked into a lather, pulled out their
ace, the legendary “Take Five,” first released in 1959 (and
written by Desmond).
It’s one of those numbers that’s in the collective DNA of
American music, yet the group seemed constantly on the brink
of discovery with it, exploring regions of improvisation and
yielding up new ground amidst the driving, familiar 5/4 chug.
Militello wove and burned his way through some stunning solo
Though it was only late afternoon, Brubeck and band simply
tipped the balance on the day; there were many great acts
on hand, but Brubeck was in his own class.
Other notable performances included (so much music, so few
words allotted), singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi (who appeared
before Brubeck), romping through a tight set of soulful blues-rock.
She and her band of ringers rolled out a set of covers and
originals that set her atop her idiom—that is, if one has
a taste for the slick, modernist, baby-boomer blues regions
in which she dwells. (And last I heard, Bonnie Raitt hadn’t
left a void that needed to be filled.)
After Brubeck, Stanley Clarke and George Duke put on a set
that explored the interstellar, postmodern reaches of jazz,
laying down some fusion, funk, and tradition within the confines
of their set.
Sixty-eight-year-old Etta James, one of the legendary belters
of R&B, capped off the day by showing she is still at
the top of her game. Her dramatic bombast and sheer power
ended the fest on a high note, as she romped through such
classics as “At Last” and the high point of Al Green’s “Love
and Happiness.” Like Brubeck, her vitality defied the encroaching
decades. But it was Dave Brubeck’s day; it’s no small wonder
that he received a round of “Happy Birthday” and standing
ovation (despite turning 85 in December) before he even played
a note. As fan Bill Cosby pointed out earlier this year, we
can’t expect our geniuses to dwell among us forever.